Hymns and contemporary worship songs: principles & preferences (1 of 3) – Hugh Wetmore

In the 1970s, when the new wave of “praise and worship songs” swept through the churches, there were people who liked them and people who disliked them. “Worship wars” divided congregations. Usually, the older generation wanted to retain hymns, while the younger generation was eager to embrace the new contemporary worship songs (CWSs).

These are shorter than hymns, so there was enough time to sing more of them in a service. For a while, during the 1980s/90s, song leaders compensated for their brevity by singing the last few lines two or three times, and the last line five times. Just when we thought we’d sung the last words on the screen, they continued to repeat themselves!

Some churches made peace by planning hymns for the morning service and CWSs for the evening service. However, the congregations became further divided, with older people participating in the morning services, while the evening services became youth services.

Some 50 years have passed since the praise and worship songs wave of the 1970s. Those older folk are passing on to join the crowds around the throne singing the Hallelujah chorus! The youth of the ‘70s is now the older generation in our churches. Yes, many still love the CWSs they sang in their youth. As a result, hymns are sung less frequently. In fact, hymns may qualify for inclusion on the endangered species list.

And strangely, as the longer hymns disappear, many of the newer CWSs are becoming longer. Songwriters are inventing sub-categories called “Verse 1”, “Verse 2″, “Pre-Chorus”, “Bridge”, “Chorus” etc. Like the hymns, they also take 4-5 minutes to complete.

So our congregational singing is constantly evolving. And it becomes identified with a generation in the church. As long as babies are born, new generations come along. Each generation develops its own culture, especially its music culture. One can’t help believing in evolution … the evolution of the music and singing cultures.

Alongside this singing-culture evolution, other changes are taking place. Ethnic cultures have always had their own style of music. In my twenties, we belonged to an indigenous African church and grew to love and appreciate their antiphonal harmonies, with layers of song coming together and separating and reuniting. The only musical instrument was the human voice. The leader was not on the platform but seated among the congregants. The pervasive influence of Western culture is tending to merge ethnic congregational singing into the CWS format. The homogenising generational culture is swamping the distinctive ethnic cultures.

The bottom line is this: With the changing musical cultures, the Church of Jesus Christ is in danger of dividing along generational lines. The natural driving force is the people’s preference for the kind of song they like. If they don’t like another style of singing, they avoid it. People’s preferences prevail!

But what about principles? As we have seen, preferences change with changing cultures, whether these are ethnic or generational. Principles have deeper foundations, unchanging, strong and secure. Principles apply to our many preferences. Preferences are subjective, principles are objective. Next month we will examine the deeper, unchanging principles.

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